Family Feud

by Christopher M. Bowers

 

If Charlie Payton doesn’t pee soon, he’s going to soak the sheets. He’s been drifting in and out of sleep for half an hour, too weary of the pressure in his bladder to dream, yet too cozy to buck the comforter and quilt and shuffle to the bathroom.

After another five minutes of debate, Charlie gives in. He peels the blankets from his body, shivering in the cool air.

I should get plastic sheets. Charlie knows that won’t happen though, even if he is half kidding. His Uncle Dillon would just love that. The out-of-work actor never passed on a chance to tease his nephew. He arrived from Orlando—which he calls “the fat roll of the universe”—to stay with them again this Christmas.

This visit went well, if well is Uncle Dillon being lit by ten-thirty Christmas morning, and tearing everyone’s presents open because he wanted to help out with the wrapping paper.

“It just gets in the way,” he proclaimed just before sloshing his spiked egg nog on Sue-Ann, Charlie’s mom.

Charlie is just thankful Uncle Dillon is leaving today. He looks at the alarm clock, 2:32 A.M. Another six hours and he won’t have to smell that breath for another year.

The wood floor of the hallway is a sheet of ice under Charlie’s feet. He passes two bedrooms on his way to the bathroom. His mom’s room is next to his, followed by the guest room with its zonked occupant.

A squeaky board covers the middle of the hallway in front of the guest room door. You wouldn’t notice it throughout the day, but at night it’s a shrieking infant. Charlie sticks to the wall, avoiding the tattling board, inching along like a spy in one of his favorite James Bond movies.

That’s all I need, Uncle Dillon coming out here to investigate. The last time Charlie’s uncle noticed him on his way to pee, Dillon leaned in the doorway jabbering how women “love a good spanking when no one’s looking.” He dreaded a repeat performance.

He aims his stream toward the side of the toilet bowl so it doesn’t hit the water directly. It splashes quietly near the rim and trickles down. Charlie is patient, making sure his bladder is empty before flushing the toilet, insuring he won’t have to do this again tonight. He considers not flushing, and just creeping back to bed, but if his mother uses the bathroom next she’ll scold him, especially since they have company.

He decides to flush, then sprint to his room. If the sound wakes Uncle Dillon, he’ll be in bed with the door locked before his uncle enters the hallway.

Charlie pinches the lever and plans his escape; flush, out the door, jump the squeaky board, into his bedroom, lock the door, slide into bed. No problem.

In the half second it takes for the water to rush in after the lever has been pushed, Charlie hears the floorboard give its loud “creeek.” The water rinses out the toilet, and swoops down the drain. Charlie looks in time to see a shadow bolt past the doorway.

Charlie stands in the bathroom, too shaken to move. Did Uncle Dillon see me? Unable to answer his own question, he decides to make a break for his bedroom.

What’s he doing up if he’s not using the can? Charlie remembers left-over cookies and fudge in the refrigerator, and figures his uncle is just grabbing a midnight snack.

He peeks into the hallway without trying to look like he’s peeking. The hall opens into the living room and dining area. You have to pass through those before you turn right into the kitchen. Charlie doesn’t see any lights on. Even if Uncle Dillon left them off, he should see light from the open refrigerator.

Screw this. Charlie steps into the hall, headed for his sanctuary. He nearly slips on his rear. The floor is wet. He thinks it’s water at first, but it feels thicker than that. It’s between his toes, making them stick together, like a few drops of Elmer’s glue on your fingers.

Turn on the light? The bathroom light would spill into the hall and illuminate the floor without immediately announcing his position to Uncle Dillon, wherever he is.

He flips the switch then wishes he hadn’t and just returned to his room.

Is that blood? It’s not, at least not all of it. There’s a thick snotty residue spread over the floor. Charlie sees swirls of red mixed in it, making blood his first impression.

He suddenly feels icky. There’s still stuff between his toes, reminding him off stepping in a pile of dog turds while running through the sprinkler last summer.

Charlie props one foot at a time in the sink and rinses off the sludge.

What is that? He steps over the gunk to the other side of the hallway. The guest bedroom door is open, the bed empty. The sludge trail starts from inside, and disappears into the dark living room.

Oh, man. I’ve gotta wake up Mom. Charlie moves to his mother’s bedroom door and turns the knob, locked. This surprising obstacle makes him hesitate. She probably locked it because she didn’t want Dillon stumbling into her room trying to paw at her. He’s been trying once a year since Dad, Dillon’s brother, died six years ago.

He leaves his mother’s room behind, creeping toward the living room, deciding to handle the situation himself, or at least try.

I’m fourteen now, gotta handle some of this stuff without Mommy.

The light switch for the living room is at the end of the hallway, Charlie flicks it up, and blinks at the harsh light.

Immediately he notices the slick carpet. The mess continues into the dining area through the narrow walkway between the furniture, and disappears again into the kitchen. He climbs over the couch to avoid getting his toes stuck together again.

Charlie turns on the dining area light as he enters it. The spillover helps to brighten the kitchen, convenient since the switch for the kitchen is next to the cellar stairway, on the far side of the room.

The kitchen’s linoleum isn’t as smeared as the rest of the house, although the door to the cellar stands open, and a mass of goop is dripping off the top of the doorway.

Charlie isn’t thrilled about entering the cellar. One reason is there’s no light fixture. His mother’s washer and dryer are there, but she always does laundry during the day, when light trickles through the cloudy ground level windows.

There’s a flashlight under the sink. He curses himself for remembering it, because he knows as soon as it enters his mind, he would have no excuse but to go downstairs.

Charlie checks the batteries, even though his mother always keeps them fresh, in case the power goes out in a storm. Better to be sure though. He has a vision of Uncle Dillon jumping out at him in the cellar. Then the batteries die.

“Joke’s on you Charlie, wasn’t that a hell of a scare?”

“Yeah, really funny Uncle Dillon. That’s a real knee slapper, clean up your snot and go to bed.”

Hoping it is a joke, Charlie flicks on the beam and starts down into the cellar. A drop of gunk drips onto his neck and he reflexively slaps at it. The stuff clings to his fingers, but the stairs are free of it, and Charlie reaches the dirt floor.

He hasn’t been down here in a while. Sometimes his mom will call him halfway down the stairs to pass him a basket of folded laundry.

The first pass of the flashlight’s beam reveals what he expected, dirt floor, concrete walls, cobwebs, and the washer and dryer. There’s actually a lot of cobwebs.

Mom must never clean down here, can’t blame her, the cellar sucks.

The washer is an old model Kenmore, the kind that opens from the top. Its lid is open. Cobwebs hang from the lid, Charlie creeps toward the washer, flashlight aimed at the opening. He stops when he hears the scraping. It sounds like a twig being dragged across metal, metal from an old model Kenmore.

Field mice occasionally find their way into the cellar. They climb into the laundry sometimes and leave their droppings on the clothes. This didn’t sound like a mouse though. It sounded bigger, much bigger.

Shaking to his core, and wondering what the heck he’s doing in the cellar in the middle of the night—following a trail of snot and looking for his screwball uncle—Charlie feels proud of himself for not waking his mom. He stands next to the washer.

He peers over the lip of the opening, shining the beam into the hole. The light reflects off a tangle of stick legs covered in short bristly hairs. Two fangs longer than his hands clatter together, it leaps.

The spider is the size of an average dog. Charlie drops the flashlight and it clings to him with eight legs around his torso, snapping at his face with its fangs. Its legs are powerful, but thin, about as thick as a thumb. Charlie’s left forearm is underneath the beast’s head, keeping its fangs at bay. One of its front legs is poking into his ribcage, but at that angle he can grab it with his left hand without moving his arm. Charlie’s other hand is free. He uses both to grip the spider’s leg. The bristles are stiff. It’s like grabbing a cactus. A few of the hairs break the skin.

Charlie grips tighter, imagining it’s his baseball bat and he’s about to hit one to the moon, like he’s nearly done so many times. The spider starts to thrash. Charlie pours on the pressure. Finally a satisfying “crack”, and the spider rips free. It scrambles into a corner, hiding behind Uncle Dillon’s body, which is hanging from the ceiling by thick webbing, covered in sludge.

Charlie doesn’t have time to scream, he’s still in shock from seeing at least eight more spiders, gathered in the corner. They converge on their wounded brother and rip him apart.

There are footsteps on the stairs. Charlie looks up to see his mother, blurry eyed and yawning, descending the staircase.

“Mom, no! Get out of here, go back up!”

“Calm down darling, it’s okay.”

Charlie runs to her at the foot of the stairs and tries to turn her around. “We gotta go, they’re almost done with that other one, go back up!”

“Charlie, now I said calm down, and you better do it before I see fit to whoop you.”

“But…”

“I know all about the spiders, Charlie. It’s okay, I raised them. They do what I say, for the most part.”

Charlie’s jaw falls from his face and smacks the dirt.

Sue-Ann turns toward the nest and speaks to her children. “Hey, stop that, all of you. Get over here.”

The spiders stop gnashing their prey and skitter across the floor until they’re a few feet away from Charlie and their mother.

“Wait, where’s Elijah?” She sees his curled remains lying behind Uncle Dillon. “Oh my god! What happened?” She turns to Charlie.

“You! You did this! Why? What where you thinking?”

Charlie, stunned, can only murmur, “Mom… it… tried to kill me.”

“Nonsense, Elijah was the gentlest of them. He would never attack unprovoked. What did you do to him?” Her hands are on her hips as if waiting for Charlie to admit he skipped school.

“Maybe the flashlight—startled it… I don’t know. Mom, what’s going on?”

Sue-Ann starts to cry. “I can’t believe you would do something like this. I just can’t…” She shatters into a blubbering oaf, covering her mouth with one hand and shoving the other between herself and Charlie, as if to push him away.

She runs up the stairs, sobbing, and slams the cellar door.

“Mom!”

Charlie is left alone with his flashlight—well, not quite alone. The spiders click their fangs together in anticipation. They surround Charlie and he can only think of how uncomfortable Uncle Dillon must be hanging upside down from the ceiling like that. He’s still proud of having the courage to enter the cellar, as the first pair of fangs closes on his neck.

Sue-Ann sets the kettle on the stove and turns the knob to “high.” She always feels better after a cup of tea. It calms her and should take care of the headache she’s suffering from the screaming rising from the cellar.

Poor Elijah, I’m so sorry baby. It’s partly my fault. I should have told Charlie about you earlier. That doesn’t excuse him for hurting you though, I can’t believe he did that.

Sue-Ann picks her favorite mug from the cupboard; a blue and white striped one with “mommy” scribbled on it. Charlie made it when he was six years old.

Oh, that reminds me, gotta call the sheriff in the morning, file a missing child report.

This wouldn’t take nearly as much acting as it did when she filed the report for her husband. Charlie is… was, a good kid. He was her only son, and she loved him, but what he did was inexcusable.

His father was a pig, just like his uncle. A grin creeps across Sue-Ann’s face. The thought of Dillon hanging down there cheers her up a bit. Also, one of her “children,” Lillian, is expecting. When the new babies arrive things will perk up again, then next Christmas will be so much better.

 

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